While North Carolina continues to outperform the rest of the country on a range of economic and social indicators, its leaders can’t afford to overlook a flashing red light on the state’s dashboard: violent crime.
According to the latest FBI data, our urban areas continue to experience rising rates. Comparing the first quarter of 2022 to the first quarter of 2021, violent crime was up 23% in Raleigh, 22% in Greensboro and Fayetteville, 7% in Durham and Wilmington, and 6% in Winston-Salem. Charlotte’s 2% increase looks comparatively tame, but it came after a bigger jump the previous year.
More generally, North Carolina’s rate of violent crime was significantly below the national average from 2009 to 2018. It shot up dramatically in 2019 to 379 reported crimes per 100,000 residents, close to the national average of 381, and then again in 2020 to 419, blowing past the national average of 399.
The immediate victims were those murdered or attacked, plus family members, friends, and neighbors. But the damage extends beyond them. Many North Carolinians now feel less safe. That, in turn, affects their decisions about where to live, work, and spend money. And if violent crime remains more prevalent in our state than in the rest of the country, that will likely have serious economic and social consequences for North Carolina down the road.
So, what should we do about this?
Let’s start with two reality checks. First, the problem is multifaceted and not easily jammed into a partisan political frame. The surge appears to be confined to violent crimes, for example, and more specifically to homicides and aggravated assaults.
When it comes to property crimes — burglary, larceny, motor-vehicle theft, etc. — North Carolina’s rate went down in 2020, not up. Indeed, our property-crime rate has been declining fairly steadily since the early 1990s. It’s down 35% in the past decade alone. While violent crimes are more likely to be reported to law enforcement than property crimes, the effect isn’t large enough to explain such a divergence in the trend lines.
Did the tumultuous events of 2020 contribute to the surge in violence? That’s certainly plausible. The raucous protests we saw in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death may have been well-intentioned, but they created incentives for law enforcement to pull back from neighborhoods where a disproportionate share of violence occurs. The COVID pandemic itself could have contributed to the problem, as well, by reducing “eyes on the street” and accentuating the mental stresses that lead some to lash out violently.
My second reality check is about guns. Most violent crimes are also gun crimes, yes, but the weapon of choice is almost always a handgun. Whatever you think of banning “assault weapons,” its effect on violent crime would be negligible. As for banning or radically restricting the ownership of handguns, I’d view the constitutional and political barriers as insurmountable even if I favored such a policy, which I don’t.
More practical solutions exist. Even when it comes to guns, most North Carolinians would likely favor stronger measures to keep guns out of the hands of minors and the mentally ill, to crack down on “straw purchases” and other illegal trafficking, and to toughen penalties for those who use guns to commit crimes.
Speaking of behavioral health, I believe there is broad support for spending more tax dollars on community-based treatment for mental illness and drug addiction, including for the kinds of faith-based programs that tend to produce the most-lasting results. North Carolina communities can also employ such bread-and-butter solutions as installing more streetlights, keeping existing lights in better repair, installing gates in alleyways, and restoring vacant lots to productive use or at least “greening them over” with grass, trees, and gardens.
We were never going to “defund the police.” As Manhattan Institute analyst Charles Fain Lehman put it, policing remains “the heart of American crime control” because of its “proven efficacy.” Still, there are other tools in our toolbox. Let’s use them.